Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Benefits of Brassicas

The Benefits of Brassicas

Edible plants in the Brassica family (also know as cruciferous vegetables), are grown all over the world – a partial list includes: broccoli, kale, collards, cauliflower, cabbage, napa cabbage, Brussels sprouts, mustards, bok choy, arugula, turnip, radish, daikon, cress, kohlrabi, horseradish, wasabi. These vegetables contain multiple nutrients with anti-cancer properties. In 1992, Drs. Paul Talalay and Jed Fahey of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine founded the Brassica Chemoprotection Laboratory, in order to test and cultivate plants that would have the highest levels of protective enzymes.

They isolated a phytochemical in broccoli called SGS, ‘sulforaphane glucosinolate’, an enzyme that helps neutralize cancer-causing chemicals, as well as free radicals, before they can damage DNA and initiate the development of cancer. They found that SGS blocked the formation of mammary tumors in rats treated with a potent carcinogen: The number of rats that developed tumors was reduced by as much as 60%, the number of tumors in each animal was reduced by 80%, and the size of the tumors that did develop was reduced by 75%. Scientists at the American Health Foundation discovered that SGS inhibited the formation of premalignant lesions in the colons of rats. Researchers in Toulouse, France found that SGS induced cell death in human colon carcinoma cells. This study suggests that in addition to the activation of detoxifying enzymes, induction of apoptosis [cell death] is also involved in the sulforaphane-associated prevention of cancer. These results have not yet been validated in humans.

Dr. Talalay and his team have examined a wide range of broccoli plants to determine which had the highest levels of sulforaphane. Varieties of broccoli were found to differ significantly in the amounts of SGS they contained and, as the plant grows older, the concentration of SGS decreased. Conversely, young plants (three-day-old sprouts) yielded much more concentrated enzyme-induced activity. Findings from this research demonstrated that certain varieties of three-day-old broccoli sprouts contain between 20 and 50 times the concentration of SGS as the mature, cooked vegetable. They are now producing and selling their own variety of broccoli sprouts (, and Brassica teas ( You can often find broccoli sprouts in markets and you can buy organic broccoli seed for sprouting at home: 800-695-2241. Here’s a good site for learning to sprout:

Indole-3-carbinol - another compound in Brassica vegetables has also been found to decrease susceptibility to cancer in laboratory animals. It alters estrogen metabolism in a favorable way, and its metabolite 3'Diindolylmethane is a strong androgen receptor antagonist in human prostate cancer cells. Researchers at the University of California and elsewhere warn that it is too early to start using indole-3-carbinol as a supplement for cancer prevention.

However, it’s always a good time to eat more Brassica vegetables. Grow some of your own. Even if you don’t garden, you can grow radishes in deep pots, or make your own sprouts.
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH –back issues on this blog. Leave me a message!
no columns on 8/24/09 or 8/31/09.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Serotonin and Your Bones

Go to Health: Serotonin and your bones

Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our bodies which relay and regulate signals between a neuron (nerve cell) and another cell. The neurotransmitter serotonin is best known for its role in the brain, where it helps regulate mood, sexual desire & function, appetite, sleep, memory & learning, temperature regulation, and some social behaviors such as assertiveness and aggression. However, 90% of our body's total serotonin is made by the cells of the gut, where it is used to regulate intestinal movement. It is synthesized from tryptophan, an amino acid found in protein foods, including plant foods. When you have a ‘gut feeling’, it’s real - you are reacting to serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the intestinal tract! Blood platelets pick up serotonin from the gut and transport it to blood vessels, the heart, the liver and other organs, including bone cells. (Platelets are tiny cells, without a nucleus, that come from white blood cells in the bone marrow. One of their main functions is to prevent bleeding.)

Bones may seem dense, but inside they have honeycomb-like scaffolding that allow them to be strong without being too heavy. Throughout life they are constantly remodeling themselves, making new tissue where needed and clearing out old bone. In recent years, studies have shown that there are molecules that transport serotonin into bone cells. This was an unexpected finding, and research into its meaning is ongoing. What has emerged is that bones get weaker in the presence of more serotonin, and stronger with less.

SSRIs This finding is important for the 8-10% of adults who are taking SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to treat depression. These drugs increase the amount of serotonin in the body – thereby helping mood but potentially weakening bone. Studies in Canada and the US have shown greater rates of bone loss and fractures among people taking SSRIs. While these antidepressant drugs – such as Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, Celexa, Luvox, Lexapro and others – have been very important for many depressed people, their possible side effects on bone should be more widely known.

Users of SSRIs and most midlife women should consider having a test for bone density (called a DEXA scan), and should also work on measures to help build strong bones. New bone growth is helped by exercise, especially strength training. Walk, jog, hike, play tennis or soccer – depending on your age and abilities. A good book for strength training is Growing Stronger – Strength Training for Older Adults. You can download it for free at

*Most people need extra Vitamin D - get a blood level of 25 hydroxy vitamin D. A level above 30 ng/ml is desirable, and 50 ng/ml is considered optimum. You will probably need to take at least 1000 IU of supplemental D daily.
*Get 1000 mg of calcium and at least 500 mg of magnesium daily in food and supplements. Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables (red, orange and yellow pigments in plant food inhibit bone breakdown).
*Don’t smoke
* If you drink alcohol, stop at 1 drink daily for women and 2 for men.
*Taking sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, testosterone) by pill or patch can help bone strength but also can increase cancer risk and is not advisable for most people over 50.
*Your doctor may advise a medication to increase bone strength; these can be helpful, but be aware of their side effects too..
Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH –back issues on this blog. Leave a message!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Go to Health: Turmeric –Curcumin

Turmeric has been gathered and cultivated in India for over 2500 years, used as an orange dye, a medicinal plant and a spice in curry. Today there is renewed interest in turmeric and its main ingredient curcumin for their potential activity against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, arthritis and many other health problems.

Cancer: At the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Dr. Bharat Aggarwal is studying curcumin. He says that the combined rate of the four most common cancers in the United States—lung, prostate, breast, and colon—is much lower in India, where curry is a staple in the diet. Aggarwal is studying the ability of curcumin to shut down nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), which is involved in the regulation of inflammation and many other processes. By blocking the activity of this ‘master switch’, curcumin appears to interfere with the cancer process at an early point, impeding multiple routes of growth: reducing the inflammatory response, inhibiting the proliferation of tumor cells, inducing their self-destruction, and discouraging the growth of blood vessels feeding tumors. These effects can shrink tumors and inhibit metastasis. Also, shutting down NF-kB can enable chemotherapy drugs to destroy cancer cells more effectively. Research on curcumin and various cancer types is still preliminary, and laboratory based; there have been few human trials. It would be unwise to stop cancer chemotherapy to take curcumin; some oncologists are interested in using curcumin as a supplement. See the new book ‘Life over Cancer’ by oncologist Keith Block MD for a full discussion of this supplement and other complementary therapies..

Alzheimer’s Disease: Based on the finding that there is 4 times less Alzheimer’s disease in India than in the US (turmeric is used as a daily spice in Indian curries), researchers at UCLA are studying the ability of synthetic curcumin and Vitamin D to clear the amyloid plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Laboratory experiments have shown that blood cells called macrophages are able to destroy amyloid plaque when incubated with Vitamin D and a form of synthetic curcumin. Studies using Vitamin D and curcumin in human patients are underway at UCLA, USC and various universities in India.. At present, there is no recommended dose of curcumin for treatment or prevention. (see my blog on Vitamin D for dose ideas on Vitamin D)

Arthritis and Bone Loss
Since curcumin is anti-inflammatory, it is being tried in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, with active trials at UCLA. Osteoarthritis may also be helped. At the University of Arizona, there is a study on curcumin’s ability to prevent bone loss in mid-life women.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease: Both Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis can result in abdominal pain, diarrhea, weight loss and fatigue, and often strike children or young adults. At the U. of Arizona there are studies showing that daily curcumin pills were able to decrease intestinal damage and cut the number of relapses by 50%. The researchers stressed that curcumin should not replace standard therapies.

Cautions: Curcumin as a supplement should not be used in pregnancy and lactation, or in people with gall bladder disease because it stimulates bile secretion and gallbladder contractions. Most people, however, can find a reputable supplement company (ask a pharmacist) and try 500 mg with food once or twice daily. Everyone can buy (or make) curry powder and cook curries at home!

Sadja Greenwoood MD, MPH –back issues on this blog